Now that Bruce Arena is six months into his second stint with the U.S. national team, the new-coach smell has begun to fade and the honeymoon is winding down.
Also gone is the sense of dread and crisis that enveloped the team when Arena replaced Juergen Klinsmann two losses into the final phase of World Cup qualifying last fall. Yet, even with the U.S. taking four points from its March qualifiers against Honduras and Panama, much work remains to be done if the Americans are to qualify for an eighth consecutive World Cup.
And the next eight days could go a long way toward determining whether this team and its coach have what it takes to get that done.
On Thursday, the U.S. will play what on paper looks to be its easiest game of the 10-game CONCACAF qualifying tournament when it hosts last-place Trinidad and Tobago, at altitude, in suburban Denver, where the Americans have never lost.
Three days later it will play its toughest game against first-place Mexico in the heat, smog and even higher altitude of Mexico City, where the Americans have won once in 22 tries.
“This is where I think we’re going to see how good is this team,” said former national team standout Cobi Jones, who played in a World Cup for Arena. “This is the toughest match. You’re playing against the best team in the region. How do you come out of this match?
“If you get a result all of a sudden you say ‘OK, Bruce, he’s righted the ship. Everything’s going the right way.’ If you don’t get a result, I still don’t think it’s panic time. But there will still be some questions. This is showtime for the U.S.”
Arena’s team held a dress rehearsal for those games Saturday, playing Venezuela to a 1-1 tie in a friendly in Sandy, Utah. Arena emptied this bench in the game, using 17 players, experimenting with a three-man back line late in the second half and getting the only goal from Christian Pulisic. However, the player who may have gone the furthest toward earning significant minutes in the two qualifiers was Fabian Johnson, who will slot into a midfield that lost two starters — the Galaxy’s Jermaine Jones and Sebastian Lletget — to injuries since the March qualifiers.
That Arena is auditioning for starting spots half a year into the job is the result of injuries to several key players and Arena’s unfamiliarity with many of the European-based players in the national team pool. Until last week, Arena, who had spent the last nine seasons in MLS, had not seen Johnson and forward Bobby Wood train in person. And he had only a fleeting acquaintance with defender DeAndre Yedlin, who left for the English Premier League after two years in MLS.
All three sat out the March qualifiers because of injuries, which leaves Arena scrambling to get everyone on the same page.
“Any time you’re with the national team, everyone comes from all over the place,” said defender Paul Arriola, who plays for Tijuana in Mexico’s Liga MX, one of six leagues from six counties that contributed players to the U.S. team. “For us it’s important to work on the chemistry as much as we can. There’s a big group of core players that have been around for a while. That’s always good.”
The U.S. is facing other challenges too. Normally World Cup qualifiers are played three days apart, but that schedule has been condensed by 24 hours to accommodate Mexico’s participation this month in the Confederations Cup in Russia. And while the U.S. will play in Colorado then travel to Mexico City, Mexico will stay home, playing both its June qualifiers at Azteca Stadium.
The combination of the tight turnaround, the travel, the altitude and the elements in Mexico City will force Arena to plumb his squad’s depth at the same time the U.S. is walking a thin line, needing no less than three points from the two games to keep its qualifying campaign on track.
“Obviously, you’ve got to get three points against Trinidad and Tobago. That’s just a given. Anything less is just a complete failure and grounds for dismissal. And then whatever happens in Mexico City happens,” said Alexi Lalas, a two-time World Cup veteran who will be working both qualifiers as an analyst for Fox Sports.
The stakes may be a little higher this time — on both sides of the field. Mexico has not won the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in two decades and the U.S. has not failed to qualify for the World Cup in three decades.
A U.S. loss next Sunday could move both those things closer to reality, increasing Mexico’s lead over the rest of the six-team field and potentially leaving the U.S. fourth in the standings, one spot short of an automatic World Cup berth with four games to play.
“We need to keep climbing that table,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who pitched a shutout in the only U.S. win in Mexico City, 1-0 in 2012.
“When you look at the roster top to bottom, you feel good about the guys who were able to come in. I think we’re past the experimentation phase.”
“These are all guys who the manager believes in wholeheartedly. And they’re not here for anything other than to play minutes and play important minutes.”